The Secret Life of Bees

By Sue Monk Kidd, 2002.

“People who think dying is the worst thing don’t know a thing about life,” (Kidd 2).
For Lily Owens, a fourteen year old girl just entering into her adolescence, death has shaped her life. It was a single moment in her childhood, a single memory that has haunted her for all her life-the death of her mother, a death that is filled with questions and dreaded answers. Lily Owens is no stranger to pain. She lives alone with her father, a harsh man who sees no wrong in cruel punishments and neglecting his daughter. The only love that Lily gets is from their housekeeper Rosaleen. Rosaleen, a strong defiant African American woman embracing a newfound hope for a future filled with equal rights for all, loves Lily for who she is. Lily and Rosaleen form a close relationship and when it is tested by racial cruelty Lily and Rosaleen leave town and go to Tiburon South Carolina, a place where Lily believes her mother once resided. Here they meet the Boatwright sisters, three African American women who care for thousands of bees and make the finest honey in town, and, who Lily believes, hold the secret to her mother’s life and her death. As with Lily and Rosaleen, the Boatwright sisters have secrets too. They are no strangers to death and pain, yet they mask this pain by turning to black Mary, a powerful religious figure that brings them peace. Rosaleen and Lily spend the summer in this town with this family, and for Lily she crosses that fine line from childhood to adolescent.

“But she’s white, August,” (Kidd 87).
It was a time where racial injustice prevailed, a time where even those who dared to hope for a life with equal rights, couldn’t hide from the cruel treatments of non-whites. So when Lily, a young white girl, stands on the steps of the house of three black sisters asking if she and her nanny can stay with them, it is only expected that June states that the young girl is white to her sister August. It would be almost unheard of, in this time, for a white girl to be staying with a family of African Americans. Yet August Boatwright sees something in the eyes of young Lily Owens and she opens her house to them with open arms knowing full well that there will be consequences. And together, the Boatwright sisters, Rosaleen, and Lily form a bond, and bridge together the differences between black and white.

“Lily, I like you better than any girl I’ve ever known, but you have to understand, there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you,” (Kidd 135).
During Lily’s stay with the Boatwright sisters she meets Zach Taylor. Zach is ambitious and bright and he and Lily become friends instantly. They begin to grow together as does their feelings for one another. What starts as a teenage crush becomes something much deeper. The only problem is that society cannot accept that the two of them have grown close because there is no denying that Lily is white and Zach is black. Because of the color of their skin they are forced to hide their growing friendship and when they attempt to defy society and go out together in public, the consequences become deadly. And when one of the Boatwright sisters is found dead, Lily is again plagued with guilt that it was she who helped cause May Boatwright’s death.

“Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about” (Kidd 148).
During her stay with the Boatwright sisters, Lily becomes a sort of apprentice to August in beekeeping. Lily learns how to care for the bees, learns that there is no fear at the small creatures, and that she must “send the bees love.” As Lily grows that summer so does her love for the bees and her love for others. She is amazed at how the bees are so resilient and survive day after day through so much hard work. She begins to relate to the bees and even sees herself in them. Throughout the novel Lily is looking for love, for acceptance, and for truth. In this sense she is like the bees themselves. Through helping August tend to them she feels needed and realizes that August accepts her for who she is. The relationship between August and Lily grows into a deep respect for one another and an even deeper love that eventually leads to the truth that Lily so desperately seeks.

Recommendations for Teachers
Since The Secret Life of Bees is a coming of age novel it would be a great book to teach in a classroom setting. There are many important themes and symbols that could be brought to life and discussed with students. Because it is set in a time of racial injustice and deals with racism at a personal level, it would be a great novel to teach about civil rights and the effects of segregation.
Discussion- One of the most effective tools to use when teaching this text will be group discussion. So much is happening throughout this novel that students will need time to discuss their interpretations and understandings of the book and its themes. During a group discussion you could choose to focus in on one particular character and how that person relates to others around him or her. You could discuss what is happening with racial injustice throughout the whole novel and discuss how each character is dealing with racism. Group discussions are a great way to gauge how your students are responding to the novel and to help them better understand the text.
Other Texts- There are so many great texts about the civil rights movement that is close to impossible to specify any certain ones. I think that with the teaching of this novel you could pull so many different kinds of texts into the lessons. There are many poems that would be relevant for the text and unit, even Martin Luther King’s speech. There are hundreds of clips you could show of real footage from the civil rights movement and how the people rallied together to fight injustice.
Journaling- Because death is such a central theme in The Secret Life of Bees, I think that journaling about death and the affects of death could be an effective exercise. We are all affected by death in some way, some at a much more personal level than others, but all the same affected. By having your students journal about this would give them the chance to voice their experiences and thoughts in a more private manner because the subject can be very personal.
Movie-The cinematic version of this novel is very accurate. The movie stays true to the text and would be a great tool to use in the classroom when reading this novel. There are two ways a teacher could use this film when teaching this book. You could watch it in sections, have your students read a portion of the novel and then watch a clip from the movie giving your students a visual aid. You could also watch the movie as a whole once you have completed the text.

About Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd was a born and raised southerner. Growing up in Georgia had a very deep impact on Kidd and it can be seen through much of her works. Her first writings were nonfiction and were often very religious. Her first three books, God’s Joyful Surprise, When the Heart Waits, and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter were all written from a very personal point of view and all had to do with her spiritual journey. All were well accepted and praised by her readers. It wasn’t until she was older that she decided she wanted to write fiction. Her first book was The Secret Life of Bees and it was widely acclaimed by many. The novel has gotten numerous awards and was on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years. Since then she wrote another novel titled The Mermaid Chair which was also an instant bestseller. Both The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees have been made into movies, one for the theater the other for television. Kidd has won many awards over the years and she is sure to have a long career ahead of her.
Sue Monk Kidd on The Secret life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd is often asked in interviews how much she is like her main character Lily Owens. She says that there are some aspects of the character that are relatable to herself, she felt the familiar need to feel accepted by peers and people around her, and she has stated that she and Lily both wanted to be writers from a young age. She also claims that her own father is nothing like Lily’s father in the novel, where T-ray was hard and cruel; Kidd’s own father was warm and loving. Kidd does claim that by living in the south growing up she was able to put her southern knowledge in her writing and it can be seen throughout the Secret Life of Bees.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
This first video is the trailer for the cinema version of The Secret Life of Bees. The movie gives an accurate portrayal of the novel and gives the audience a visual aid to the book.

This next video is an interview with author Sue Monk Kidd. In this video she talks exclusively about her novels and gives her audience insight into her writings.

Additional Resources:
Sue monk Kidd's official website
How to care for bees
Dealing with the death of a parent
I have a dream speech
Runaway Teenagers
Secret life of bees discussion questions